Irish Open: Rory McIlroy ready to get down to business
World number one instrumental in getting Dubai Duty Free as sponsor for Royal County Down
Calm before the storm: A view of the par three fourth hole at Royal County Down ahead of the start of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Inpho/Presseye
That means he places it above the WGCs, the Players et al – and yet it is very much down to the man himself that this old championship enters effectively a new era with its staging at Royal County Down and the promise of going from strength to strength.
As George O’Grady, the outing chief executive of the European Tour replied when it was put to him that the new title sponsor had only given a one-year commitment: “Yes, it’s true that agreement with Dubai Duty Free is for one year, but they sponsored the Irish Derby [seven] years ago for one year as well . . . Dubai are long-term players.”
That Dubai Duty Free has come on board as title sponsors is a breath of fresh air for the championship, which dates back to 1927 but which has been without a title sponsor since 3 ended its commitment in 2010.
McIlroy’s association with the Irish Open – which is being hosted by the Rory Foundation – was ultimately the key in securing the sponsorship, with he and caddie JP Fitzgerald approaching Colm McLoughlin, executive vice-chairman of Dubai Duty Free, during the Dubai Desert Classic earlier this season.
“But I am more impressed with the person that he is. For someone who has got so much fame and money at such a young age, he is still a very grounded person. It hasn’t gone to his head. I think that is the most endearing quality about Rory.
“He spoke to me about the Rory Foundation and what they want to do, and it resonated a lot with the objectives we have at our Dubai Duty Free Foundation. You can see he wants to do a lot for the underprivileged. He is quite passionate about it, and is very mindful of his responsibilities as one of the leading sports stars in the world.”
An immediate impact of Dubai Duty Free’s title sponsorship is that the prize money for this year’s championship has been increased by 25 per cent on last year, up to €2.5 million. But the McIlroy effect is seen elsewhere too, with three of the world’s top 10 in the field – McIlroy, Sergio García and Rickie Fowler – and no fewer than 14 of the current world’s top 50.
As players started arriving yesterday, with McIlroy’s white sports BMW occupying his own reserved spot in the car park, no one is more excited about the tournament than the world number one.
“I haven’t been as excited for a golf tournament this year, apart from the Masters for obvious reasons. I haven’t really played well in the Irish Open and that’s something that hasn’t sat well with me for a few years. I think it’s to do with maybe trying too hard and maybe pushing yourself too much.”
The field was finalised yesterday, with Lee Slattery getting the last of the tournament invitations. There will be 22 Irish players competing, including three amateurs and six club professionals off the Irish PGA order of merit.